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Monday, September 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Software programs called RSS readers creating a blog jam

By Kim Peterson
Seattle Times technology reporter

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The Microsoft Web site that hosts its employee Web logs gets a spike in visits at the top of each hour, 24 times a day.

The surge isn't because people are sitting at their computers, diligently searching every hour for the latest news from so-called bloggers. Instead, software programs called RSS readers are doing it for them, resulting in a barrage of traffic as the number of employee blogs has grown to nearly 1,000.

The uptick in visits is a side effect of RSS readers, a familiar technology in the world of blogs, but one that is just starting to catch on with mainstream Web users. And some experts say that Web sites may not be prepared to handle the massive amount of traffic the readers are expected to generate as they become more popular.

Put simply, RSS readers act like a giant online clipping service. The software scours the Web, sometimes hourly or more frequently, requesting RSS-enabled feeds of content from the blogs, news sites and other places the user chooses. The programs collect the feeds into one place that a person can manage, such as an e-mail inbox or a personalized online library. The feeds can be accessed through Web-based services, such as Bloglines, or software programs such as NewsGator or RSS Bandit.

RSS isn't quite a revival of "push" technology, a system of automatically downloading content to computer desktops that was popularized in the late 1990s. Some push technology lost its appeal, in part, because it clogged networks as it delivered information people often didn't really want.

RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication," and one of those words is key to its appeal: simple. The readers bring the news to people, saving time and making it easier to manage the Web.

Unraveling RSS


Software programs known as RSS readers are constantly on the prowl for updated information from Web sites. The technology, and the way people use it, has given rise to a set of new terms. A recap:

RSS: Stands for "really simple syndication" or "RDF site summary." It's a format in which content from blogs and other Web sites is delivered to specialized news readers.

Blogs: Online Web logs. These online diaries have exploded on the Internet in recent years, covering just about every subject imaginable.

RSS readers: These programs receive RSS information through dedicated feeds. They can be Web-based or available in a software download.

"I live off of RSS," said Peter Rojas, the editor of the online consumer-electronics magazine Engadget. "I read literally 500 RSS feeds a day. It can be a little overwhelming."

Feeding the beast

It can be just as overwhelming to be at the other end of the feed — the site that is producing the information. RSS readers can request feeds from Web sites hourly or even more frequently, even when the user who wanted the news doesn't stop to read it.

"People subscribe to tons of feeds," said Sara Williams, a product unit manager at MSDN, Microsoft's developer network. "They might look at them even once a week, or less frequently, and so they're just generating all this traffic."

The issue generated some controversy at MSDN this month. Citing increased bandwidth costs, the division trimmed the full text of the employee blogs on both its main Web site and its aggregated RSS feed. It began offering excerpts of postings and asked users to click to other sites to get the full text.

The decision was heavily criticized by some bloggers, and last week MSDN eased off of the restrictions by expanding the excerpts of blogs on its main Web site and returning the RSS feed to full text.

Microsoft says RSS visits to its employee blogs site have soared almost 200 percent since February. The feeds can make up as much as 70 percent of the overall traffic on some of its sites.

There are nearly 1,000 Microsoft employee blogs, some of which are updated several times a day while others go for weeks without new information. Many of the RSS readers are programmed to search for updated feeds once an hour, which is why Microsoft and other sites see a spike in traffic.

Demand slows site

The technology news site Infoworld was getting so many RSS requests at the top of each hour that the site actually slowed down for a few minutes each time under the burden, said Chad Dickerson, the company's chief technical officer. Dickerson said the situation was similar to the trouble some Web sites had handling visitors years ago as the Internet became more popular.

"It's going to be a problem for larger sites like Infoworld and Yahoo! in the same way that in the late '90s and early 2000 you started to see scaling problems with CNN and eBay," he said. "I think this is the next-wave scaling problem."

Infoworld has taken steps to reduce the load on its site, such as compressing its RSS feed before it sends it out, Dickerson said.

Technology news site Slashdot has gone a bit further, setting a policy of allowing one request per reader every 30 minutes. It has banned readers that request more frequent feeds, and on its site cautions people to "stop beating the crap out of our servers."

Numerous RSS reader programs have sprung up all over the Web, and mainstream news sites such as ESPN.com, CNN.com, NYTimes.com and seattletimes.com have quietly begun offering feeds of their content.

It's hard to know how much RSS activity is out there because there's no good way to measure it. And it's impossible to know if people are actually viewing all of the content they've sent their readers out to get.

The market is still nascent. Mark Fletcher, the chief executive of Web-based newsreader service Bloglines, estimates the people who use RSS readers likely number only in the hundreds of thousands.

"We are a bit early in the awareness curve," he said. Bloglines accesses some 270,000 feeds every hour and then sends the information out to its subscribers, taking some of the burden from the content providers.

About 14,500 Bloglines users subscribe to Slashdot's feed, for example, Fletcher said. Bloglines will ping Slashdot once an hour and then distribute the information to Blogline subscribers. Fletcher wouldn't say how many total subscribers use his service.

Next generation

Seattle-based Findory.com is offering what Chief Executive Greg Linden says is the next-generation RSS reader. The Web-based service, called Blogory, collects RSS feeds into a massive pool and sends its users individual snippets to read, based on the history of what they've read. Users don't have to subscribe to individual feeds.

RSS feeds are popular with early adopters and news junkies, Linden said, but the technology may not become as widely used as some have predicted.

"Other people don't really have the time to set up an RSS reader, hunt down these feeds and copy and paste (them) into a reader, which is exactly the problem that Findory is trying to solve," he said.

RSS proponents talk of other uses for the technology in the future, such as replacing mass e-mail lists.

Companies are starting to use RSS readers as a way of communicating with their employees, said Greg Reinacker, chief executive of NewsGator, which develops several RSS reader systems.

NewsGator users can decide how often they want to access, or pull, their RSS feeds, and Reinacker said he is hesitant to set limits on that capability.

One NewsGator customer was pulling feeds every three minutes.

"There's a lot of scenarios where people want to pull it more often and there's a business case for doing so," he said. "If I'm pulling information that's critical to my business, maybe I want to pull it more often."

The increased traffic from the readers can tax some Web sites, Reinacker said, but publishers can benefit in ways they never have before.

Now, he said, publications like Time magazine can send out a feed telling people about a new article on its site that they can read.

"RSS in my mind is really enabling a communication mechanism that hasn't been done before on a wide scale, and that is the ability for publishers to notify their readers when something new has been posted on the site," he said.

"There's a little bit of cost in bandwidth to do that."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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